Names that Make Computers Go Crazy

Names that Make Computers Go Crazy

In 1961 IBM introduced a new monster processing system, called 7074. The beast was normally delivered in several trucks, required a room of 40 by 40 feet, and weighed more than 41,000 pounds. It had a disk storage unit with a capacity of 28 million characters, and could process almost 34000 operations per second. Still, it was no match for Hubert B. Wolfeschlegelsteinhasenbergerdorff. Hubert rose to fame in 1964, when Associated Press carried the story of how his name broke the IBM 7074 supercomputer at the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. That's because Hubert had twenty six first names, one for each letter of the alphabet, and 666 letters in his surname. In order to finally get the social security card issued, Hubert had to clip his name to 44 letters, and it still had to be processed manually instead of on the computer. Hubert decided to use only his eighth given name, the initial letter of his second given name, and the first thirty five letters of his surname. Various versions of the Guinness Book of World Records printed his surname with either 590 or 666 letters. Later in his life, I can only assume caused by increasing digitisation and the intolerance of computers, he was mostly known as Hubert Blaine Wolfe+590. With 1111 letters, excluding spaces between the words, he still holds the world record for the longest name.

Although Wolfeschlegelsteinhasenbergerdorff passed away in 1997, and modern computers work on much more than 34Khz, they still break around unusually long names. In 2013, Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheʻekahaunaele started a campaign against the Hawaii Department of Transport for not being able to print her name on the driving license. Until then, the licenses had space for only 34 characters, two fewer than her last name. The drivers licenses also could not show the Okina, the Hawaiian accent that looks like an apostrophe, although it features in the native name of their state, Hawaiʻi. Journalists from KHON2, a TV station in Honolulu, picked up the story. After public pressure, the government caved in, and changed the policy to allow up to 40 characters in a name. This required an upgrade to computer systems across the state.

It's not just long names that cause weird computer problems. Short names do as well. Take for example the story of Stephen O, a South Korean living in Virginia, who had several credit card applications rejected because the local banking systems could not record a single-letter last name. He was only able to get a driving license under the surname OO, then had trouble getting car insurance because the credit agency couldn't match his records. The credit bureau computers knew him as Ostephen, presumingly 'upgrading' the name from Korean to Irish. In one database, after a lengthy search, they found him as blank-blank-O. He finally gave up fighting computers and changed his name to Oh. Mr Oh didn't have a choice but to surrender to binary logic.

Although a single-letter last name might sound unusual, it is not that uncommon, especially with romanisation of far-east Asian names. A notable example is O Rissei, the famous Japanese Go player. Single letter forenames are also possible. A good example is A Martinez, American actor famous for his roles in eighties soap-operas, who shortened his name from Adolfo to just one letter. Of course, different countries have varying rules for this. Sweden does not allow single-letter names, but the UK does.

With increased computerisation of travel records and identity document systems, bad software causes constant confusion and problems for people with even slightly longer names. To understand just how much the situation is messed up, you just need to check the various standards created by different governments and international organisations. For example, the Passenger and Airport Data Interchange Standard by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) allows up to 64 characters for each of the given name, surname and up to three middle names in passenger records. However, the machine readable passport guidance by the same organisation requires names to be printed in font size between 10 and 15 characters per inch, roughly allowing up to forty letters in each of the names. The machine readable part fits 39 letters for the full name including spaces. Some governments impose even shorter limits. For example, the Australian passports fit up to 31 characters for name fields, including all spaces.

Even in the same country, systems often have inconsistent length limits. For example, the US Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160) has a total length for each name of 31 characters, but the I-94 Arrival/Departure record fits 17 characters for the last name only 13 for the first name. The US Social Security Administration accepts two lines of 26 characters per name. The US passport application form DS-11 allows for 21 characters for a last name, 17 for the first name and 16 for the middle names.

To make things worse, systems not dealing with international travel have their own limits. For example, the UK Government Data Standards allow for 35 characters for each name, but only 70 characters total for the full name, consisting of the title, forename, surname and all middle names. Yet, birth certificates do get issued for longer names as well. On December 31 1986, John and Margaret Nelson from Chesterfield in the UK got a baby girl, and originally wanted to give her 207 names, but that could not fit on a birth certificate. At the end, they settled for just 139 given names. Tracy's full name has 140 words, or 855 letters. When spaces between words are included, the name has 995 characters. I'd love to see her filling in an immigration form with the field 'any other names you were known by'. In fact, people with even significantly shorter names have trouble travelling when various database name allowances do not match.

Of course, people can be born with just one given name and then change it to almost anything these days. The UK Deed Poll service allows standard applications up to 150 characters in a name, but for a special fee accept even longer names. David Fearn from Walsall, in the West Midlands, changed his name in 2006 to a collection of all the James Bond movies recorded until then. He is now officially known as James Dr No From Russia with Love Goldfinger Thunderball You Only Live Twice On Her Majesty's Secret Service Diamonds Are Forever Live and Let Die The Man with the Golden Gun The Spy Who Loved Me Moonraker For Your Eyes Only Octopussy A View to a Kill The Living Daylights Licence to Kill Golden Eye Tomorrow Never Dies The World Is Not Enough Die Another Day Casino Royale Bond. James Bond's full name has 69 words or 312 letters without the spaces between words. Just imagine the famous Sean Connery scene at the casino table when he introduces himself as 'Bond, James Bond', but spells out all the other names in between.

Bond movies seem to inspire fanatics, at least in the UK. Emma Louise Hodges from Birmingham, then 28-year-old, changed her name in 2012 to a combination of 14 Bond Girl names. She is now Miss Pussy Galore Honey Rider Solitaire Plenty O'Toole May Day Xenia Onatopp Holly Goodhead Tiffany Case Kissy Suzuki Mary Goodnight Jinx Johnson Octopussy Domino Moneypenny (Miss is one of her first names, not a title).

Sure, all these examples are completely crazy outliers, but if you're building or testing software that records personal information, make sure you can accommodate very short or unexpectedly long names as well, at least to the ICAO limits. For a more down-to-earth example of a long names, remember Uma Thurman and Arpad Busson's daughter, Rosalind Arusha Arkadina Altalune Florence Thurman-Busson.

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Gojko’s book Human vs. Computer deals with wrong assumptions, computer bugs, and humans caught in between. Buy it here:


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About Gojko Adzic


Gojko Adzic is a strategic software delivery consultant who works with ambitious teams to align software delivery with business goals, and improve the quality of their software products and processes. Gojko specialises in are agile and lean quality improvement, in particular impact mapping, agile testing, specification by example and behaviour driven development.

Gojko’s book Specification by Example won the Jolt Award for the best book of 2012. In 2011, he was voted by peers as the most influential agile testing professional, and his blog won the UK Agile Award for the best online publication in 2010.